Will the Synod Debate Take Divorce Ministry to the Next Level?

Despite nearly one out of three Catholic marriages ending in divorce, few parishes have divorce ministries, and pastors have no standard best practices to draw upon.

(photo: CNA photo illustration)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Putting together a parish ministry for Catholics in the U.S. who have been through divorce is “pretty much like putting a car together.”

Deacon Turf Martin, who presides over the divorce ministry at Sacred Heart parish in Sedalia, Mo., however, points out that divorce ministry is not like a car that comes factory assembled and ready to customize. Instead, the car comes in a box of parts and maybe with some of the instructions about how it all fits together.

“The whole concept of ministering to the divorced in a whole program is a relatively new concept,” he told the Register. The deacon explained that there are no standardized “best practices” to draw upon or even a “formal training process” for divorce ministry persons to go through. But working with the Catholic Divorce Ministry (CDM), Deacon Turf has developed a six-month, 14-step program for divorced Catholics. He said the diocese wants the parish to pilot a program that can be replicated in parishes across the diocese.

“The people who have gone through the program have not regretted it,” he said, explaining that it has helped renew their faith and relationship with the Church.


Crisis of Support

Nearly one out of three (or 28%) ever-married Catholics are divorced, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

That is a major portion of the Catholic population in need of pastoral care.

Deacon Martin explained that the psychological trauma of divorce is similar to losing a loved one to death.

“Part of their life is no longer there,” he said. The deacon explained that in his ministry he has to work with people who were at one time either the cause or the victim of divorce — or even both — and it requires an accompaniment of “very small steps,” as each individual has his or her own pace to go through the grieving process, faith formation and personal healing. Only at the conclusion do they discuss the annulment process.

For many Catholics ministering to the separated, divorced and civilly remarried, the public debate surrounding the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family on the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried avoids the real elephant in the room: namely, that 35 years after the first synod on the family in 1980, the Church has not effectively acted on St. John Paul II’s pledge in Familiaris Consortio that the divorced would have the Church’s “solicitous care” and “untiring efforts” to help them and make sure they feel part of the Church.

“[The divorced] should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace,” the Pope said. “Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.”

Greg Mills, CDM’s executive director, told the Register that he still has to dispel myths that divorce means excommunication or makes them unable to receive holy Communion ever again, which gets repeated — despite St. John Paul II’s teaching in Familiaris Consortio — by both laity and priests, who should know better.

“This is self-inflicted due to a lack of education,” he said. “So congratulations to Pope Francis for pushing it to the top of the line.”

The Church’s current pastoral response is nowhere near proportionate to the crisis, according to Rose Sweet, author of the Catholic Divorce Survival Guide program (Ascension Press).

“I’ve been calling dioceses, and 80% of them admit they have nothing for the divorced, separated and remarried,” she said.

Sweet told the Register that, out of 17,000 parishes, her own program is only now in 400 parishes, little more than 2%.


‘Third Way’ Rises From the Synod

However, the synod debate may have put the Church on the cusp of developing a standard pastoral model for both integrating divorced Catholics with the parish and accompanying them in their healing, catechesis and conversion, with the support of their pastor and the parish community. It is a model that can help give divorced Catholics who have civilly remarried the grace and strength to draw close to Jesus Christ, understand their irregular situation in the eyes of Church and take the needed steps to resolve it so they can once again receive sacramental absolution and the holy Eucharist.

In an essay published in the theological journal Nova et Vetera, Dominican Father Thomas Michelet said there is a “third way” between two “pastoral strategies of despair” concerning the divorced and civilly remarried: that of telling these Catholics that nothing can be done for them and that of giving them absolution and the Eucharist without having them cease their sinful sexual activity. The Dominican theologian proposed that the Church draw from its ancient tradition and restore the Order of Penitents, just as it restored the Order of the Catechumenate with RCIA, as a path of conversion for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics who want it.

The priest pointed out that penance in the ancient tradition was seen as “disposing a person to contrition” and could be rediscovered in a modern way. Father Michelet envisioned that the new ordo could bring together the Church’s recommended pastoral care for the divorced, accompanying them through four stages — the Flentes, Audientes, the Substrati and the Stantes — paired with appropriate liturgical actions, such as the presentation of a Bible or washing of feet. A person enters the last stage of this spiritual pilgrimage, the Stantes, with full restoration to the sacraments, when “the work of grace will give them finally the strength to commit themselves to end their disordered union … [so] that they can stand upright.” Father Michelet stated that a free and long-matured decision to “live as brother and sister” would have to be ratified by one’s spiritual director, they would have to go through a period of probation and then be solemnized by the bishop on Holy Thursday. A period of deeper exploration of the faith (mystagogy) and witness would then follow.

Father Michelet suggested that Pope Francis could issue a “simple motu proprio” or devote an entire synod to make it a reality.

J.D. Flynn, a canon lawyer who is special assistant to Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., told the Register that Father Michelet’s idea “is the kind of pastoral theology that the synod is calling for and, in some ways, what the New Evangelization is calling for.”  

“The idea is fundamentally rooted in what is true about the sacraments, about conversion and repentance, and it intends to find a way to take the path the Holy Father is talking about: namely accompaniment.”

Flynn said the proposal also respects that penance cannot “overcome objective reality” — namely that one cannot receive Communion while living as husband and wife in a second union not recognized by the Church — but also shows “something which we all know in our life is true: that penance can lead us to conversion and having some means of incorporating us into the Church’s community.”

As such, it does provide a pattern that, with appropriate sensitivity, “could bear great fruit in the lives of a lot of people.”

“I think it is quite fascinating, but in terms of how it would work, how it would be developed and implemented, the Church would have to do some thinking,” he said.


On the Right Track

Father Michelet’s proposal, which does not allow for divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to receive Communion while living in what the Church considers an objectively sinful relationship, has generated interest from Catholics in divorce ministry, who say the idea is on the right track because it respects the integrity of both the sacraments and the road of conversion.

“In many ways, it is similar to what we do now,” said Sweet, pointing out that the proposal reaffirmed what the best divorce-ministry programs were doing: wrap-around pastoral care, small group settings and the involvement of the parish in praying and supporting the healing.

It also reflected conversion is a process that takes time and requires accompaniment, Sweet said. One of the main things the divorced need is for the Church to listen them and to help them see the beauty of Jesus Christ and following him, before it starts the discussion about the rules for getting there — or even such options as a declaration of nullity.

“You have to draw them in warmly, not overlooking sin, but showing them the beauty and power of what we have,” she said. The path of conversion can give divorced Catholics who have civilly remarried without a decree of nullity the strength to realize “they can be happy without sex,” added Sweet, because they hunger for the Eucharist more.

According to Sweet, Father Michelet’s proposal has the potential to be a valuable tool.

“I thought it would be perfect for people coming back to the Church,” she said.

Sweet recommended that Father Michelet’s proposal should be inclusive of all the separated and divorced. She added that it could have two “tracks,” one that addresses those separated-and-divorced Catholics who have not entered into a second union and one that addresses divorced Catholics who have entered into a second union without the Church determining the prior one was invalid. Rose said each group needs a different kind of care, but the goal is the same: healing and conversion with the right support.

She noted the name would also have to be changed, so as to not become a barrier for those it intends to help — in fact, Father Michelet suggested that the name could be recast as a pilgrimage.

In any event, Sweet said, the Pope has to make sure care for the divorced becomes a reality in parishes, instead of a dead letter.

“We can’t keep discussing it for 10 more years,” she said. “We need it now.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.